Film Review | Killer concept murdered by rushed execution

A high school student discovers a supernatural notebook with deadly powers. Intoxicated with his new power, he begins to eliminate those he deems unworthy of life • 2/5

Prickly conscience: Nat Wolff (left) and Willem Defoe strike a Faustian bargain in Netflix's manga-and-anime adaptation Death Note
Prickly conscience: Nat Wolff (left) and Willem Defoe strike a Faustian bargain in Netflix's manga-and-anime adaptation Death Note

Once again, the global phenomenon of a streaming service that is Netflix tries to take a bite of the home cinema pie by presenting yet another ‘Original’: an adaptation of the Japanese manga-turned-anime Death Note by promising – though lately faltering – American director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch). Though plagued with similar white-washing accusations as the other live action anime reimagining – the Scarlett Johansson-starring Ghost in the Shell – after Wingard’s production cast Paper Towns/The Fault in Our Stars actor Nat Wolff in the lead, the premise of this dark gem remained intriguing enough to check out. 

However, severe structural shortcomings have nevertheless managed to cut another promising project at its knees. 

Having recently lost his mother to a mob hit while his helpless police investigator father (Shea Whigham) is forced to grin and bear it, our improbably-named protagonist Light Turner (Wolff) is handed an even more improbable boon. Quite literally falling from the sky and into his lap, a leatherbound book inscribed with the words ‘Death Note’ on the cover leads Light into an encounter with Ryuk (Willem Defoe), a spiky-backed ‘death god’ with a creepy smile and a sarcastic demeanour. Most crucially though, Ryuk offers Light – whom he has hand-picked as the new bearer of the Death Note – the chance to murder whoever he wants by simply writing their full name in the Note and choosing their cause of death. 

Initially embarking on a quest for vigilante justice – joined by his overly-enthusiastic love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) – Light’s well-meaning project, given the moniker of ‘Kira’, spirals out of control once the police start putting two and two together. And when the determined ‘Kira hunter’ super-agent who goes by ‘L’ (Lakeith Stanfield) jumps into the fray, it looks as though Light and Mia may just have met their match.

Overzealous: Margaret Qualley
Overzealous: Margaret Qualley

To be sure, here’s a juicy premise that’s already been juiced with gusto throughout the course of the franchise’s extensive manga run – created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata – and the anime series which ran between October 3, 2006 to June 26, 2007... along with three live-action films. Which makes Wingard and co’s task of adaptation no small feat, to be sure. However, the end result betrays that what we got in the end is a rushed-and-compressed affair which, much like Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, offers up an East-Meets-West collage that’s really just the worst of both worlds. 

Though there’s some amoral fun to be had once Light first uncovers the Death Note’s potential – to mete out revenge on bullies of various stripes – and while Defoe offers a mischeviously game motion-capture and voice performance as the creepy Ryuk, the project collapses under what looks to have been a rushed schedule with no time dedicated for script refinement and a true visual signature to shine through. 

In a lot of ways, Death Note is yet another victim of the ‘just get it done’ approach that ‘Netflix Originals’ appear to operate under. Save for a few exceptions – Okja, Beasts of No Nation – the streaming service appears to be valuing quality over quantity when delivering up its live action film roster, and its rushed scripts and uninspiring visual palettes are evidence of the corner-cutting involved. Despite the script having been hammered into a shape by a total of three scribes – Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater – the characters of Mia and ‘L’ are given no motivation at all, and so their extreme actions and choices just ring hollow: shallow plot contrivances, nothing more.  

Though its ambitions to create a new cross-platform, cross-country trend are palatable, Wingard’s Death Note sadly falls short of delivering on the promise of a new age of live-action anime adaptations. While certainly better than the dismal Dragon Ball and The Last Airbender (and only marginally less controversial than the recent Ghost in the Shell), Wingard’s film, hampered by a lackluster script that severely under-writes key characters, lacks a confident-enough visual direction to bring such a high-concept idea to full fruition.